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Stress and weight gain: The correlation

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Let’s face it: no matter the cause, stress is no fun. It can make you feel wired, cranky, or anxious; other times, it’s the source of fatigue and depressive feelings.

And when you’re under chronic stress for a long time, you might start to notice weight gain that seems to come out of nowhere.

How can chronic stress cause you to put on pounds? There are a bunch of ways that it can lead toweight gain. It can affect your appetite, your metabolism, and other bodily processes. 

Keep reading to discover the links between stress and weight gain and ways to recognize and manage your stress.

The link between stress and unhealthy habits

Stress-related weight gain is more common than you might think. In fact, they often go hand in hand. 

For example, when you’re stressed over a tight schedule and an endless to-do list, healthy choices often give way to less-than-ideal options.

  • Stress can result in unhealthy eating habits: When anxiety makes it challenging to turn on the stove and cook a nutritious meal, it’s hard to stick to a healthy routine. You might be tempted to rely on drive-thru or take out to save time, or lean on less healthy comfort foods, especially if you’re prone to emotional eating.

  • It can also make it challenging to exercise: Prolonged stress makes it hard to think about anything else, so the last thing you may want to do is hit the gym. But since exercise can increase feel-good endorphins that alleviate these feelings, missing out on a sweat session could compound your stress-related issues.

Stress-induced weight gain can create a sort of feedback loop, too. If you’re anxious about a lack of progress with your weight-loss goals, those negative feelings might lead you to make choices that cause you to gain more weight. And that can stress you out even more and—you get the picture.

All this is to say that stress—be it financial, familial, or otherwise—can make weight loss and dealing with obesity an uphill battle.

Can stress cause weight gain without overeating?

There’s more to stress-related weight gain than what you see on the surface.

Even if you try to eat right and maintain healthy habits, you can still gain weight with chronic stress. That’s because hormonal changes occur inside your body when you’re stressed. 

These biological changes can cause moderate hormonal weight gain—even without overeating. Here’s how:

The science behind stress weight gain

When you experience psychological or physical stress, your adrenal glands release a surge of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. It’s a perfectly normal reaction, triggering a burst of energy and strength that comes with the “fight-or-flight” feeling.

But when too much cortisol is released continuously, it can create some undesirable effects. One effect is increased appetite. Cortisol is also known to impact your food choices—making you want to reach for comfort foods that are high in fat, sugar, or both. While these comfort foods may temporarily soothe your stressed-out feelings, they can also negatively impact your weight-loss goals if you consume them too often. 

And there’s more: After the initial burst of energy that comes with a stress-related cortisol spike, your body can settle into a state of energy conservation. Meaning: You’ll burn fewer calories. This is an effort to keep you charged and ready to take on whatever is stressing you out. And that makes it easier to gain weight, even if you’re eating your usual healthy diet.

Cortisol and insulin are also intimately related—as part of the fight-or-flight response. Here’s what happens: Cortisol causes an increase in blood sugar, providing the body with energy, and under normal and short-term circumstances, insulin secretion is inhibited. However, in some people, chronically-high cortisol levels are associated with insulin-resistance, high blood sugar, and weight gain.

On the topic of fat, high cortisol levels in response to stress can ultimately cause that excess fat to be stored in the abdomen at a higher rate than in other areas of the body. This abdominal adipose tissue (a fancy name for fat stored in the stomach or belly fat) differs from other types of body fat. It’s called visceral fat, and it’s linked to:

  • Heart disease

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • High cholesterol

 As if the hormonal issues weren’t enough, stress can also lead to overeating and sleep loss (and the lack of Zzzs can make you feel extra hungry). So it’s clear that stress management should be a top priority.

Identifying stress: Signs and symptoms

One of the first steps in combating stress and stress-induced weight gain is learning to identify what’s causing it. 

Sometimes you know exactly what’s triggering those feelings. But stress can also be more subtle, and you may need to get in tune with the ways stress affects your daily life. They include:

  • Muscle tension: We tend to clench our muscles when stressed, especially our jaw, neck, and shoulders. If those muscle groups feel tight, you might be stressing about something subconsciously.

  • Anger or irritability: Feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day life can make us irritable. Lashing out at friends or family without warning is a telltale sign of stress.

  • Upset stomach: Afflictions like bloating, diarrhea, cramps, and constipation are associated with stress. It could be stress-related if your stomach feels off and you haven’t eaten anything out of the ordinary.

Stress manifests itself in other physical and emotional ways, including:

  • Mood swings

  • Headaches

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Depression

  • Use of drugs and alcohol as a coping method

  • Fatigue

  • Losing focus or motivation

  • High blood pressure

On its own, a short-term symptom may not indicate stress. But if you encounter several of the above signs as ongoing issues, it might be time to address the stressors in your life.

Ways to manage stress

There’s no magic wand to eliminate stress from your life. Psychological stress is an unavoidable part of modern existence (with deadlines, relationships, and bills to pay), but it also serves a biological function.

Still, when you feel too stressed for too long, you need self-care to help mitigate that feeling. Otherwise, your health can be affected. These are some of our favorite interventions to minimize day-to-day stress.

Rest and relaxation

We mentioned that sleep and weight loss are correlated, right? Here’s how that plays out: Resting can seem counterproductive when you’re stressed about due dates. But a good night’s sleep is crucial because when you miss out, there’s evidence that your body may increase its production of hunger hormones. These hormones can make you crave calorie-dense foods while, at the same time, tamping down satiety signals, so you may overeat. You also need sleep for good health in general, of course! So what we’re saying is: Don’t skip out on it.

Similarly, taking a moment for yourself is essential. Relaxing—even for a short time—can refresh your mind, making you more efficient at the task ahead. When stress starts to pile on, consider spending half an hour reading, walking, talking to a supportive friend, or doing anything that allows you to unwind.

Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness are ways to check in with your current state, and they can be excellent stress-reduction tools.

  • Meditation: This is the practice of focused concentration through deep-breathing exercises. It can be guided or self-led. Either way, a short meditation session can help you clear your mind and leave you feeling renewed. Other potential benefits include anxiety management, decreased blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health.

  • Mindfulness: This type of meditation involves focusing your awareness on yourself and making a judgment-free assessment. Looking inward and being mindful of your situation can help you pinpoint the stressors in your life, allowing you to overcome them.

Exercise

Movement releases endorphins—hormones that send “feel-good” signals to your brain. So regular exercise reduces the negative emotions from stress. It also helps counteract other symptoms of stress like cravings, digestive issues, mood swings, and sleep issues.

If you aren’t up for hitting the gym, pick a moderate physical activity that is pleasurable, whether it’s:

  • Gardening

  • Taking a walk

  • Swimming

  • Dancing

  • Yoga

Socialize

Simply put, happiness can combat stress and lead to overall wellness. With that in mind, spending time with friends and family members who make you happy is a terrific way to combat stress.

On top of the obvious effects on mood and general well-being, studies have shown that positive thinking can cause a dip in cortisol levels. So, surround yourself with people who make you think positively and watch your stress melt away.

Plan ahead

Much of the anxiety and stress in our lives can be tied back to a full plate of responsibilities. That means thorough planning can help eliminate some of our daily stress.

If you have a busy week, try planning out each day and what you need to complete. 

Some people find a planner or calendar helps them keep track. Ultimately, if you try to segment your time—and stop yourself from procrastinating too much—you can lower those deadline-induced stress levels.

How to end stress weight gain

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply embrace a worry-free existence? Unfortunately, there’s no way to remove all stress from your life. Taking the time to manage stress helps with some parts of your weight-loss journey, but as you can see, many factors are at play.

With that in mind, the best way to get rid of stress-induced weight gain is to find a holistic plan that simultaneously tackles every part of weight gain. That’s where we come in.

Found is a lasting weight care program that relies on modern science to help you see results. Found puts you on the path toward healthy, happy living by focusing on multiple contributors to your overall health.

Want to see how our combination of community support, individual health coaching, and prescription medication can jumpstart your weight care journey? Take the Found quiz today!

If you ever find your stress level overwhelming, consider contacting a mental health care professional for assistance. Below please find a list of resources:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Call 1-800-950-6264, or text “HelpLine” to 62640. You can also text NAMI to 741-741 for 24/7 free crisis counseling.https://www.nami.org/Home

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  1-800-273-8255 to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 

  • If immediate help is needed in an emergency or if someone feels unsafe, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

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